Profile: Labour deputy Grant Robertson

By Guyon Espiner In From Our Archive, Politics

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NZ Listener, 3 Mar 2012; v.232 #3747:p.26-30

Photo Marty Melville

You might ask whether a gay man could become Prime Minister of New Zealand, but perhaps the real question is whether Grant Robertson is gay enough. John Key mincing down the catwalk modelling a Rugby World Cup uniform – now that’s gay.

Robertson’s fashion sense, when minus his obligatory parliamentary suit and tie, extends to blue jeans and a black hoodie, tugged over a body untroubled by strict diets or rigorous exercise. His partner, Alf, drives buses. Grant and Alf are grandparents. They met playing rugby.

The Wellington Central MP is famous on Lambton Quay and stretches of Willis St. In Auckland, those who have heard of him occasionally edit his name to Robinson, the way people added an “s” to Key until he was well into the premiership. So, no, Labour’s new deputy leader isn’t the next big thing yet. But he could be the next Deputy Prime Minister and he could even be, one day, our first gay Prime Minister.

Robertson hovers over the coffee plunger in the kitchen of his comfortable Wellington home. He is not comfortable. He eyes the brewing process with suspicion. He’s alert rather than nervous. He squints. He blinks. He hugs his ample body. He weighs his words and measures his answers.

Look at Robertson and you see a big guy with glasses, a slightly sloppy student politician. Talk with him and you find a highly professional MP with a disciplined and meticulous mind. Call him cautious, though, and you make him angry. He doesn’t want to believe that the hesitation that allows him to avoid political pratfalls could also sap his courage to make change. At times his courage trumps his caution. To advance the equality agenda he believes gays should be able to marry and also to adopt children.

“I can’t see any reason why a gay couple who are good functioning human beings can’t provide that environment. It’s about the best interests of the children.” He also wants Labour to adopt a policy of allowing gay marriage. “I am really proud of what we did with civil unions, but I get that for people it is not absolute equality,” he says.

“When we resolve what future we have with relationship-status issues, one of the things we are going to have to contemplate is, do we keep civil unions and simply open up the idea of marriage to same-sex couples? Or do we have some institution that ends up being called civil marriage and lets the churches go off and do their own thing?” Apart from being labelled cautious, what angers Robertson is the idea that his sexuality could prevent him understanding the concerns of ordinary New Zealanders.

“That’s one of the things that irritates me the most. How can you say that? That someone won’t understand New Zealanders because they’re gay. I understand all sorts of things about being a New Zealander. I understand what happens when your dad goes to prison. I understand what it’s like when the All Blacks lose. You know? I understand what it’s like when you’re trying to work out if you’ve got enough money to do [renovation] to the house? It’s bullshit.”

With David Shearer, 2011, photo Mark Mitchell/NZH

Aside from the “sewer of the right-wing blogs”, he rarely gets attention for being gay, but he rejects the suggestion he has cultivated a “straight” image.  “This is absolutely me. I love rugby. I’m into sport. I’m into alternative music. I’m not pretending to be someone I’m not.” On occasions, he has a quiet chuckle about his contradictory image as “the blokey gay guy”, but says this also makes an important point.

“There are gay bus drivers. There are people in all walks of life. It is important that people understand that. That’s one of the issues we have to get past: believing that there is a particular type of gay person.” He knows his sexuality would be more of an issue if he were Labour’s leader and considered that when deciding whether to challenge for the top job. “I thought about, is New Zealand ready for there to be a gay Prime Minister, or a gay leader, and I actually think we are. The next question was, am I ready? Is this where I should be?”

His answer was no. “I’m 40 and I think I’ve still got a bit more to learn.”

One way or another, the deputy leadership may offer that opportunity. After Robertson took the post, Sir Geoffrey Palmer was among his well-wishers: “Congratulations, Grant. I just want you to know that being deputy leader of the Opposition is the worst job I have ever had.”

Robertson grew up in South Dunedin, the youngest of three boys in a middle-class Presbyterian family. Dad was an accountant. Mum was at home. Later she was a teacher. Social life was the church and the youth group. “Things fell apart a bit later on when Dad was sent to prison and that was a hugely difficult and trying time.” That was 1991. His father, Doug Robertson, was an accountant at a law firm.

“Unbeknownst to his family, he had been stealing money from the firm for what turned out to be nearly 10 years. It was a curious thing – it wasn’t a huge amount of money in any one go, but it built up to being a very large amount of money.” In fact, the amount was close to $120,000. Robertson, 20 at the time, had just moved out of home. With his parents’ income reduced to almost nothing, he now qualified for a student allowance.

“I had to provide evidence, so I had to take the newspaper clipping of him being sentenced and say, ‘This is why he’s got no income.’” He visited his father every few days during his 15 months in Dunedin Prison, which “literally was a Victorian prison – the most appalling place”. Robertson says the cold played havoc with his father’s circulation and led to other health problems later in life.

“I was tremendously angry with him for a very long time, because it was such a stupid thing to do and he ruined his own life and turned his family’s life upside down.” Robertson forgave his father well before he died. “I was angry with him for a long time, but that didn’t stop me loving him.”

Having his dad go to prison further politicised the university student. He thought more about why we send people to prison and what we do with them when they get there. Reforming the ­justice system remains a key goal. Meanwhile, his part-time supermarket job became a necessity rather than just a source of pocket money. He saw the working conditions of his colleagues eroded by National’s Employment Contracts Act. But this was not an awakening. These were real-life examples that intensified an existing ­interest in politics.

Robertson’s grandfather Bob Wilkie was Labour’s Wairarapa candidate in 1954 and 1957, although without success. By the time Grant was head boy at Dunedin’s King’s High School, he was trying to engage his uninterested classmates in political discourse. One of them predicted he would become Prime Minister one day. At university he fought against student fees and became student president at Otago in 1993. By 1995 he was vice-president of the New Zealand University Students’ Association and co-president the following year.

Robertson worked for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade between 1997 and 2001, including a stint in New York as a diplomat at the United Nations. By then he realised he was “too political for the public service” and began his career at Parliament when Helen Clark’s Government hired him as a troubleshooter for gaffe-prone minister Marian Hobbs. He was soon poached by the Prime Minister’s Office and spent five years as a senior adviser to Clark from 2002. He greatly respects and admires her achievements.

“What the party knows and remembers is nine years of government under Helen Clark. You’re going to be in awe of that, aren’t you? So, yeah, people hanker for being in government, and Helen was the person that led that.” So, how does Labour get back into ­government, and is David Shearer the man to lead it there? Ask the deputy about his leader and you get a statement you might expect to hear from someone describing his flatmate or neighbour rather than a Prime Minister-in-waiting.

What is he like? “He’s a really good guy. He’s one of the most approachable people I have ever met.” Robertson admits to being a little surprised when Shearer put his name forward. “[It’s] quite a brave thing to stand up after two and a half years in your caucus and say, ‘I reckon I can do this.’” The leadership duo have less than six years of parliamentary experience between them. They will certainly be fresh, but is it a change of style rather than a change of substance? Robertson opts for both.

“The way we describe what it is we are trying to do does matter to people. So, I wouldn’t underestimate the importance of some new clothes.” Robertson has an image of the voter Labour lost touch with: the van driver doing his GST returns late at night, discovering he has earned little more than the minimum wage. “Did they think we were talking about things they weren’t interested in? Were we being too negative?” he asks, although he knows the answer. “The fundamental mistake we made was that we told people what we were against, but we didn’t tell people what we were for.”

Civil union with partner Alf in 2009, photo Anthony Phelps/HoS

But Labour did have a significant policy platform: a higher top personal tax rate, a capital gains tax, a tax-free threshold for the first $5000 of income and plans to raise the retirement age and increase the minimum wage. Those policies are now under review and some will be jettisoned. Robertson says the capital gains tax is “a very important policy” he hopes Labour will be brave enough to campaign on before the next election. But he is not as staunch about lifting the retirement age from 65 to 67, and signals Labour may back away from the policy.

“On the retirement age, my personal view is we probably have to have another look at that to ask, ‘Is that the only way of addressing the problem? Are there other ways we can do that?’” Labour will also review its policy of extending Working for Families tax credits to beneficiaries. He says there may be other policies to ensure income is “redistributed” to help those children.

When it’s pointed out he hasn’t mentioned jobs as part of the solution to poverty, he becomes a little defensive and then surprisingly optimistic about the power of paid employment: “We obviously grow jobs and eventually we end ­up with full employment and we don’t need these sorts of support schemes.”

Robertson could be accused of economic naivety for believing a future government would be able to abolish welfare programmes by achieving full employment. When asked about his knowledge of economics, he says it’s “growing” and that although he and Shearer are “both competent in the area”, it is finance spokesman David Parker who provides the drive and energy in the portfolio.

Robertson has little experience in the private sector, but doesn’t see that limiting his understanding of businesses. “You can be the Minister of Health and not be a heart surgeon.” Is he a left-winger? “Yeah, I think I am,” he says, before giving the standard disclaimer about the usefulness of such labels. “For me, the concept of being on the left is around the fact that you believe individuals will flourish when the collective flourishes.” Social justice is the phrase he keeps coming back to – his crutch on his political journey.

He is a politician, he admits as we drive into town after the interview. It’s said as a confession, but neither of us acknow­ledges the absurdity of it, given by an MP in a car emblazoned with his face and party logo. What he means is that he has been a politician for most of his life, and Shearer has not. And we have arrived at a point – probably only briefly in the grand sweep of history – where being a politician is not necessarily an asset for political leadership.

Key started the recent trend of “non-political” leaders and Shearer was chosen to match him. Clark was a politician, Robertson muses. Jim Bolger was, too. And they both led long-term governments. He knows that this is not yet his time, but he senses it may come. “I want to take it as far as I can take it and we’ll see how long that takes.”

He does, though, see a life beyond politics. “I don’t think for my own personal satisfaction in life that staying there and being carried out in a box is what I am after,” he says. “I have only been there for three years, so I think you can cut me a bit of slack.” But he already displays the skills and the language of a veteran politician, fully aware that what is said now will be taken down and used against him at some later date.

Robertson is reluctant to confirm reports that he confronted Phil Goff in late 2009 when the leader made a race-relations speech likened to the divisive style of Don Brash’s Orewa address. Goff is now yesterday’s man, a mere Labour backbencher. Robertson is deputy leader, but that doesn’t stop him observing the rules of caucus confidentiality, even if the conversation is now more than two years old. Robertson is disciplined.

“Interesting word,” he says, catching it safely with both hands, then comparing it carefully against alternatives. “I work hard …” he begins. But I interrupt … “and you are very cautious”. He counters the dreaded word with several seconds of silence. “I play by the rules,” he says, coolly. “I will argue my corner in the caucus meeting in the party policy process. Once we’ve come to an agreement, I will back that. That’s loyalty to me as much as caution or discipline.”

He says he wants “to do stuff in politics” and is concerned that being seen as cautious could work against him. He admits to being “defensive” about it. Is that because it’s true?

“I think I am concerned that I could end up that way, yeah,” he smiles, realising his statement is, in itself, a cautious one.

His face breaks into a broad grin, as though he’s proud to have caught himself out. The laughter lingers a little and for a brief moment it is hard to separate the warm-hearted human being from the cool-headed politician.

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